In the opening moments of Doug Liman's lively American Made, a bored TWA pilot named Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) on a long overnight flight turns off the autopilot and rocks the jet to wake folks up.
The sequence is meant to suggest that Seal himself is on autopilot. Seal is a restless fellow looking for action, which arrives in the form of a CIA agent (Domhnall Gleeson), who sets him up with planes and a private airport so that he can fly dangerous recon missions in Central America, where the agency is countering Communism in Nicaragua and elsewhere.
Seal is intrigued, but cautious: "Are you sure this is legal?"
This is a question the real Barry Seal — the movie is heavily fictionalized — would never have asked. Seal was a career criminal — an amoral profiteer and daredevil pilot with a fleet of planes who ran all sorts of contraband to all sorts of places, and in the 1970s became one of the biggest cocaine importers in the United States. He was well-known to law enforcement — when in hot water, he was eager to offer his services as an informant, and often did so.
Of more interest to Liman (who worked with Cruise in the vastly underrated Edge of Tomorrow) than the real Seal's criminal activities is Seal's purported role as a CIA "asset" — his off-the-grid, off-the-books air transit network to Central and South America and his contacts with drug traffickers. Seal's moral flexibility made him a useful fellow. Covert arms were flowing to Central America, drugs to the U.S., money everywhere, and Seal was in the middle of it all.
The scope of Seal's involvement is a matter of debate, and Liman takes the time-honored Hollywood approach — when facts and legend collide, print the legend. American Made glamorizes Seal and puts him at the center of an uptempo comedy that draws considerable energy from the escalating slapstick madness of Seal's exploits — cartel kingpins casually wagering that Barry's overloaded plane can't clear a mountain runway, or Seal evading the DEA by crashing his plane in a suburban street, emerging covered with cocaine and paying a kid a stack of bills for his bike.
It's all punctuated with the famous Cruise grin, which hasn't changed since Risky Business, when he first hinted at a healthy serving of larceny behind that all-American smile.
Ill-gotten gains are shown to be an aphrodisiac for Seal and his wife (Sarah Wright), and the sheer size of the cash jackpot becomes the movie's favorite subject. There are running jokes that Seal has literally more money than he knows what to with — he buries it in the yard like a dead pet, and loose bills have to be raked up like autumn leaves.
It leads, the film posits, to his downfall. His deadbeat brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) shows up and starts to steal money and spend it, attracting the attention of state police, DEA, FBI, and other agencies.
They all take a frustrated back seat, though, to other interests. The Reagan administration (through men such as Oliver North) recruits Seal on a sting operation to implicate Nicaraguan Sandinistas in the drug trade. This bit is essentially true, just as it's true that subsequent public reports of Seal's role in the sting were (spoiler alert) an existential problem for Seal. Associates in the Medellin Cartel were not amused.
The movie ends brutally and abruptly, with Seal learning the wages of sin. And there is a note of cynicism — the Seal narrative in American Made bumps up against the Bush and Clinton dynasties. Liman darkly notes that Seal's airstrip operates with impunity in Bill Clinton's Arkansas, and that George Herbert Walker Bush was Reagan's vice president when North's Nicaraguan adventures were in full swing.
Seal, though, makes for a poor fall guy. Liman had it right in that first scene: The turbulence in Seal's life was of his own making.